Estate of Casillas v. City of Fresno, CASE NO. 1:16-CV-1042 AWI-SAB

CourtUnited States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Eastern District of California
PartiesESTATE OF CASIMERO CASILLAS, et al., Plaintiffs v. CITY OF FRESNO, et al., Defendants
Docket NumberCASE NO. 1:16-CV-1042 AWI-SAB
Decision Date02 July 2019

CITY OF FRESNO, et al., Defendants

CASE NO. 1:16-CV-1042 AWI-SAB


July 2, 2019


(Doc. No. 99)

After a five-day trial in February of 2019, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiffs on their claims of Fourth Amendment excessive force and of California battery and negligence, as against Defendants Officer Shipman and the City of Fresno. Doc. No. 88 (Jury Verdict).

Defendants filed a motion for new trial and for a directed verdict, contending: (I) two jurors committed misconduct; (II) the jury's damages award for loss of enjoyment of life must be voided; (III) the damages award for decedent's pain and suffering is excessive; (IV) the negligence verdict is inconsistent; (V) the jury received improper instructions on the battery claim; (VI) insufficient evidence exists to support the jury's verdict, and the verdict is against the weight of the evidence; and (VII) Officer Shipman is entitled to qualified immunity. Doc. No. 99. Plaintiffs oppose. Doc. No. 111. The Court will deny Defendants' motion, as:

(I) There was no juror misconduct in either voir dire or deliberations;
(II) The damage award for loss of enjoyment of life is valid under Chaudhry;
(III) The award for pain-and-suffering is within the range approved of by authority;
(IV) The errant portion of the negligence verdict is disregarded as superfluous;
(V) The Court gave the proper jury instruction for the battery and § 1983 claims;
(VI) The verdict is supported by substantial evidence and is not against its clear weight;
(VII) Officer Shipman is not entitled to qualified immunity on the § 1983 claim.

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On September 7, 2015, officers with the Fresno Police Department attempted a traffic stop of a vehicle driven by Casimero Casillas. Casillas instead drove to a residence in Fresno, exited the car, and hid from the officers. Later, Casillas was spotted on foot exiting a detached apartment, while carrying a large metal pipe, as he attempted to evade officers and K-9 units. See Ex. J111, the "Diagram of property Photo 001047," below (Doc. No. 85 at p. 1). Casillas entered a small and cluttered room where Officer Shipman was stationed, and moved toward the opposite door. Within seconds, Officer Shipman shot Casillas three times without a warning that he was going to shoot. According to Officer Shipman, Casillas carried the pipe in a "pre-assaultive" manner and never made eye contact with the Officer. Casillas audibly moaned as paramedics attempted to stabilize

Image materials not available for display.

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him; he died from his injuries six hours later at the hospital.

After a five-day trial, the jury found that Officer Shipman's use of force was excessive, as alleged in Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment and California battery causes of action.2 Doc. No. 88. The jury determined Casillas did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to Officer Shipman at the time of the shooting (as queried via a special interrogatory designed to address the issue of qualified immunity). Id. at p. 2. As to Plaintiffs' negligence claim, the jury found Officer Shipman to be both negligent and a substantial factor in causing Casillas's death. Id. at p. 3. The jury also determined Casillas was negligent, but that his own negligence was not a contributing cause of his death. Id. at p. 4. The jury then apportioned fault, in contravention of the instructions on the verdict form, at 60% for Officer Shipman and 40% for Casillas.3 Id. For damages, the jury awarded $250,000 for Casillas's "mental, physical, and emotional pain and suffering experienced prior to death," $2,000,000 for Casillas's "loss of enjoyment of life," and $2,500,000, divided equally between Casillas's five children, for their loss of Casillas's love, companionship, and the like. Id. at p. 5-6.

Two weeks after the entry of judgment, Defendants filed the instant motion for new trial, asserting numerous legal challenges to the verdict form and jury instructions, as well as renewed arguments for a directed verdict and for a finding of qualified immunity. Doc. No. 99. In addition, Defendants contend that two jurors committed serious misconduct during their service as jurors. Id. Defendants allege that one juror, a former city manager of the nearby city of Tulare, was fired from his job over an officer-involved shooting in Tulare a year prior. Doc. No. 99-2. Defendants alleged the other juror, the foreperson, knew the decedent in the same Tulare incident, and that both of these jurors were associates of the former mayor of Tulare, whom Defendants characterize as anti-police. Id.; Doc. No. 114-5. Finally, Defendants presented the affidavit of a third juror in

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this case, who stated that these two jurors discussed the Tulare incident with the jury panel during deliberations. Doc. No. 114-4. Defendants argue these contentions constitute evidence of bias against police officers, including Officer Shipman, and contend these jurors should have disclosed their biases when questioned by the Court during voir dire. Doc. No. 99. Because the alleged biases were not disclosed, Defendants question the fairness of the proceedings. Id. Defendants also contend "external prejudicial information" infected the jury's deliberations. Doc. No. 126.

In response, Plaintiffs submitted declarations from the foreperson-juror and city-manager-juror; both jurors stated they had no bias against police officers generally or against Officer Shipman or the City of Fresno P.D., and otherwise disputed Defendants' specific contentions regarding the Tulare officer-involved shooting. Doc. Nos. 118-1 and -2. Plaintiffs also submitted declarations from the mother of the decedent in the Tulare incident, stating she did not know the juror foreperson, as well as various legal documents regarding the city-manager-juror. Doc. Nos. 111-2 and 121-1.

On May 29, 2019, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on the juror misconduct issue, where the parties cross-examined the three jurors who submitted affidavits. See Doc. No. 126-1 (transcript). The parties filed supplemental briefing, and the Court took Defendants' motion under submission.

Legal Standard for a Rule4 59(a)(1)(A) Motion for New Trial

"The court may, on motion, grant a new trial . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Rule 59(a)(1)(A). Historically recognized grounds include claims "that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving." Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940)); see also Crowley v. Epicept Corp., 883 F.3d 739, 747-48 (9th Cir. 2018) ("[A] new trial may be warranted if the district court has given erroneous jury instructions or failed to give adequate instructions."); Pope v. Man-Data,

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Inc., 209 F.3d 1161, 1163 (9th Cir. 2000) (issue of juror misconduct appropriate for Rule 59 motion for new trial); Vaughan v. Ricketts, 950 F.2d 1464, 1470 (9th Cir. 1991) (resolving "irreconcilably inconsistent" jury-verdict issue under motion for new trial standards). The district court has broad discretion in deciding whether to grant a new trial but should use this "extraordinary remedy . . . sparingly in the interests of finality and conservation of judicial resources." Wood v. Ryan, 759 F.3d 1117, 1121 (9th Cir. 2014). In considering a motion for a new trial on any of these grounds—including that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence—the trial court may assess the credibility of the witnesses and weigh the evidence. See Kode v. Carlson, 596 F.3d 608, 612 (9th Cir. 2010); see also Landes Const. Co., Inc. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1372 (9th Cir. 1987) ("The court need not view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party."). "The burden of showing harmful error rests on the party seeking the new trial." Bos. Sci. Corp. v. Johnson & Johnson, 550 F. Supp. 2d 1102, 1110 (N.D. Cal. 2008) (citing Malhiot v. S. Cal. Retail Clerks Union, 735 F.2d 1133 (9th Cir. 1984)); see also Madrigal v. Allstate Ins. Co., 215 F. Supp. 3d 870, 907 (C.D. Cal. 2016), aff'd sub nom. Madrigal v. Allstate Indem. Co., 697 Fed. App'x 905 (9th Cir. 2017).

Legal Standard for a Rule 50(b) Motion

A renewed judgment as a matter of law is proper only when "the evidence permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to the jury's verdict." Rookaird v. BNSF Ry. Co., 908 F.3d 451, 455 (9th Cir. 2018) (quoting Josephs v. Pac. Bell, 443 F.3d 1050, 1062 (9th Cir. 2006)); Rule 50(b). All evidence should be "construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Castro v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 833 F.3d 1060, 1066 (9th Cir. 2016); see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prod., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 151 (2000) (holding that in ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court "must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe."); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) ("Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge."). Thus, "[t]he verdict will be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence, 'even if it is also possible to draw a contrary conclusion.'" Rookaird, 908 F.3d at 455 (quoting First Nat'l Mortg. Co v. Fed. Realty

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Inv. Tr., 631 F.3d 1058, 1067 (9th Cir. 2011)).

I. Defendants have not demonstrated the jurors committed misconduct.

Defendants' Arguments

Defendants contend that a new trial under Rule 59 is warranted because of "the extreme bias of two...

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